What’s the Hope for the World? ‘The Aging Out of the Boomer Generation.’
Gulp. A bracing talk with Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of 'America's New Map,' on how the US will look, once it gets past its current traumas.
Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” issue in January, 1967: Those age 25 and under, the now-dreaded Boomer Generation, were collectively the awardees. The past five US presidents have all fit in this group. (The youngest, Barack Obama, was five years old when this Time issue came out; the oldest, Joe Biden, was 24. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were all age 20.) A writer who was also five years old that year says that moving past the Boomers will save the country.
His newest book, out this fall, is called America’s New Map. Like his other recent works, it’s written in a breezy and easily digestible way — short chapters, many charts and maps, bullet-points at beginning and end of each segment as reminders of the main message. I mean these observations as compliments.
I haven’t agreed with Barnett in the past on all of his diagnoses or prescriptions. Which is why I emphasize that I found several themes in his latest book to be fresh, important, contrarian, and worth highlighting.
From the clip below you can hear the whole 55-minute conversation I had with Barnett last week. But I’ll offer a few set-up highlights — and then, as a subscriber feature, a transcript of the entire talk.
For the moment, here is the podcast:
One big theme: climate change will mainly show up as migration.
But also possibly as inspiration.
Barnett is crystal-clear about climate change as a central driver of world politics, economics, and strategic tensions. And he emphasizes two related aspects of particular importance to the United States.
—One is climate’s role as driver of migrations—mainly south-to-north around the world, since that’s more feasible than east-west migration across the broad oceans. Millions of people are going to have to move, and sooner or later someone will have to accept them.
—The other is climate’s potential to be the next great motivating theme in American life, a rough counterpart to frontier-expansion in the late 1800s, and industrialization in the early 1900s, and military challenges in the mid-1900s.
You can read more about this as the central argument in his new book, and a recurring theme in the second half of our conversation. For instance: Barnett argues in his book that the US will naturally become more open to Latin American migrants, both because more of them will be coming, and because the US will have greater needs.
In our talk I ask him: How could that possibly be, in a political climate where “troops at the border!” is a rallying cry.
Fallows: Of course history shows us that climate and disruption drive migrations. The Irish after the potato famine, and many others. But in those days there was not a Border Patrol, and not the same immigration system, not borders in our current sense. How would the real-world US open itself up, as you say?
Barnett: It's going to be accomplished by generational turnover.
The Boomers and the Gen Xers, both Cold War babies, what do they know? They know the sanctity of borders. It's a very Cold War mentality. That's what they know. That's what they're comfortable with. OK?
When you start talking millennials, Gen Zs—I got six of them as kids—they don't have those instincts. They're not gonna sign up for a 50 year Cold War with the Chinese to prevent them from doing—what? Building bridges around the world or something like that? They're very skeptical about our military interventions. You're seeing the resistance on our support to Israel right now. You're seeing the wavering of our support to Ukraine. They're very much focused on climate change.
They are very much convinced that they're going to live in this (ethnically changing) world. I think they're right. And they're eager to address it. So think about who's going to be running the system in 2050. The peaking and the points in history where we're going to have the most adaptation are going to be probably in the 2030s, 40s, 50s. And that's when Gen Z and the millennials are going to come online.
There is much more in the book, and some more in our talk. (We go only briefly into some of the dystopian warnings about climate-driven migration, as in the notorious 1970s book The Camp of the Saints. Barnett says more in his book.) Barnett also gets into the politics of climate-response as the next great American motivating theme and goal, and an inevitably force toward further US ethnic diversity. I won’t recreate his whole argument here, but I recommend it.
Another big theme: the US growing past the trauma of ‘losing its whiteness.’
In our conversation I tell Barnett about one of my biases. The Boomer-era California in which I grew up was, like most of the US at that time, majority white. The community where I grew up was in the 1960s roughly 60/40 Anglo/Latino. But by the 1990s, California as a whole had become the first mainland state (Hawaii led the way) with a “majority minority” population—that is, whites making up less than half of the total.
In national journalism, this was treated as some kind of possibly traumatic turning point. I remember editorial discussions at the The Atlantic’s Boston headquarters at the time, about commissioning a then-famed writer to do a big cover story on California’s change.
My own view of the change, then and now, was and is: So what? California had always been a mixed place—that was much of its appeal—and the proportions of the mixture were shifting. In a big, complicated world, any place was lucky to attract a disproportionate share of the world’s talent—as California had long done among US states, and as the US had long done among countries.
Barnett argues that a version of the California change is happening for America as a whole—and that while underway it is proving traumatic. Yes, America’s openness is its strength and genius. But at the moment the trauma of feeling “left behind” is, he says, a main driver in today’s US politics:
Barnett: There is also, I would argue, this huge fear factor in America that has to do with the fact that we hit peak whiteness in 1950… And then across the course of your and my lifetime, roughly, we’re watching that 90% white America profile in 1950, drop to 45% by 2050…
I would argue, an underlying freak-out factor that figures into all these culture wars is that you’re seeing scared white population targeting any other they can find, and saying they’re the problem
We’ve got to “get back” to where we were. We’ve got to “become more Christian.” We’ve got to “become more white.” They don’t actually say that last part, but their actions speak to that kind of focus…
I don't think you can understate the fear factor that drives this. Robert Pape, the University of Chicago political scientist, did a study of the 377 people that were arrested at the January 6th insurrection. And not only were they like 95 percent white, average age 58, which puts them right into the angry-white-aging zone, but they were overwhelmingly from counties that were experiencing the most rapid decline in the white population. So it's that disorientation.
To me, that's a microcosm inside our country about America's sense of disorientation, displacement, replacement by a non-white world or by the Chinese or by these rising powers.
Barnett argues that time is working against this fearful minority. Listen and read to hear more.
A final big theme: ‘America’ among The Americas.
When I worked in the Carter administration, one of my dear friends was the late Robert Pastor, Carter’s advisor on Latin American affairs. A dozen years ago Bob Pastor published The North American Idea, his vision of how the countries in this hemisphere could find economic, political, and strategic common purpose.
Thomas P.M. Barnett ends up arguing something similar in this book: that the most natural US alliances are up and down the American continents, rather than across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. I’ll let you read that for yourself in his book.
And one more bonus theme, about an American advantage over China in the long run:
The Chinese dream doesn't include anybody but Chinese. And the Indian dream will be very similar. But anybody can become American. And we should take advantage of that.
And, one more:
If the boomers have done one thing, it's they've created a vision of America that is so negative right now, that a lot of our young people aren't interested in it.
The purpose of this post is to introduce you, first, to a conversation, and then possibly to a book. After the break, a link to a transcript of the whole conversation. Thanks to Tom Barnett for his time and stimulation.
A rough-and-ready transcript of our talk starts below.